What Did Medieval Welsh Law Texts Say About Female Virginity?

Taylor Tully

Laws of Hywel Dda

The Welsh law texts are called the Laws of Hywel Dda or Cyfraith Hywel Dda. The Laws of Hywel Dda are dated from around the early 13th or late 12th century around 250 years after the death of Hywel Dda in 949. Many believe that these laws did not accurately portray the views and laws of the time but in fact portrayed the laws of earlier centuries. However we will never really know. The Welsh law texts are split into three main sections the Cyfnerth, the Blegywyrd and the Iowerth and they look quite extensively at the treatment of women and how virginity or a lack of virginity should be treated. The law texts look at the treatment and punishment of women who are found to be ‘false virgins’, the different fines and fees that surround women as they go into marriage and how virginity is very important in the allocation of these funds. They also look at how virgins who have suffered from sexual violence should and would be treated and much more. In a section of the law texts called the laws on marriage, it claims that if a girl has started growing breasts and public hair and has menstruated then it is impossible to tell if the girl is a maiden or a woman, making it very clear that to be 100% sure your wife is a virgin upon marriage the best time to ‘acquire’ her is when she is still prepubescent. A woman who was found to be a false virgin (‘twyllforwyn’) would be found guilty under the Cyfraith Hywel law codes. This woman would be made to pay a fine known as a ‘sarhaed’ for the shame she has placed on her kin by lying about her ‘virtue’. The law texts also states that if a woman had hit puberty by the time she was married her seven closest kin would have to swear an oath that the woman in question is still a virgin before her wedding night. Without this oath, a woman may be accused of being a false virgin and would lose complete access to her Argyfrau, Agweddi and Cowyll. A woman’s ‘Agweddi’ would translate the closest to the English dowry, this would be a sum she brings into the marriage. The ‘Argyfrau’ refers to the physical items a woman has brought into her marriage. Finally, the ‘Cowyll’ was a payment made by a husband to his wife the morning after their wedding night, which was seen as a formal change from a virgin to married woman. If a woman was found to be guilty of this offence she would completely void her claim to these funds and items. She may also be punished for this under the law. The Iowerth texts suggests a ‘twyllforwyn’ should publicly have her ‘shift’ (undergarments) cut all the way up until her genitals were showing and she should be given a steer with its tail full of grease, and if she was able to keep hold of this animal (which would have been nearly impossible) she would be able to keep her dowry. However, this was just another way to embarrass and make a fool out of women.
What Did Medieval Welsh Law Texts Say About Female Virginity?
Folio 1r of Peniarth MS 38 (Cyfraith Hywel Dda). In July 2010, the Peniarth Manuscripts Collection was included on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. (Wikimedia commons)

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Rape and the Importance of Virginity in Medieval England and Ireland

One topic that is interesting about the treatment of virginity in the medieval Welsh law codes is the treatment of women who had been the victim of rape. If a virgin was raped, a ‘sarhaed’ would have to be paid based on her status alone, compared to a married woman who would receive her ‘sarhaed’ based of her husband’s income and status. Rape was also seen under the law codes as a form of legal union/marriage, however because of the nature of the union, the marriage would be void immediately. This meant virgins who were victims of rape were entitled to a ‘cowyll’ and all other forms of payment that was normal for marriages that did not last more than seven years. A virgin who had been raped would no longer be classed as a ‘maiden’ which would make it almost impossible for her to marry somebody with status, as a woman’s value at the time in the marriage market was based on her virginity and ‘innocence’. She would no longer be of value to their male kin and would no longer be under their rule, as again a woman’s value came from her ability to marry up the social ladder and without the title of virgin/maiden this would have been very hard for her to do. The law also claimed that if a man rapes a woman who claims to be a virgin, but the man claims she was not, she is to be believed as there is no evidence to suggest that she had not been a virgin at the time of the crime and the man should be punished in accordance with the laws on rape. As you can see within the Welsh law codes, virginity was very important and protecting a woman’s virginity was seen as just as important. Girls would grow up very close to their families until she was allowed to marry, as it was seen as the male kin and other close family members responsibility to protects a girl’s virginity and confidently be able to swear she was still a ‘maiden’ to her future husband. Boys in Wales were allowed to go on fosterages whereas the girls had to stay at home with their male kin, who legally had to protect them from abduction or consensually giving away their ‘virginity’ until she was married. The Irish law codes are much less strict. Girls in Ireland had pretty much all the freedoms of their male kin until the age of 14, which is the age in which she would have been seen as old enough to marry. Girls under 14 were allowed to go on fosterages just like their brothers. Wales in the medieval period focused heavily on virginity and keeping female children close to home until she was able to marry making it so there was no reason to question the girl’s virginity. Ireland, however, did not focus heavily on virginity and focused more on things like fertility. In medieval England virginity was a public issue. As female virginity was important in confirming the identity of a child’s father, it became the concern of many to make sure women in their family and neighbourhood continued to be virgins until marriage. If a woman in medieval England was found to be a sexually active she would pay a ‘leirwite’ which is a fine for being sexually active and if she became pregnant she would have to pay a ‘childwite’ which is a fine for giving birth outside of wedlock. However, although both Ireland and England have certain laws that talk about virginity it is nowhere near as in depth as the Welsh law codes.
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Laws in Medieval Literature - Mabinogion

Some of the provisions spoken about in the Welsh law codes are seen in practice in medieval literature - most relevant to my studies is the Mabinogion, The Mabinogion is not only literature but originates from oral performances in earlier generations that was finally written down in the 1300/1400s. An example of how this text is relevant is the character Aranrhod who in the fourth branch is subject to a magical virginity test which she ultimately fails. She is shunned by her peers and publicly argues with her male relatives about the shame they put on her by parading around the child that came from this pre-marital relationship. Although she was found to be a false virgin, she was not punished in the way the law deems necessary. However, this may be because she was highborn, and that factor might have been why Math was lenient with her punishment. Another woman in the fourth branch that is significant here is Goewin, who was raped by Gwydion and Gilfaethwy (the nephews of King Math). Math punishes both of these men in accordance with his own code but his actions towards Goewin is the important factor here. Math automatically asked Goewin to marry him once he had found out what had happened to her to prevent her from facing any shame from her kin or peers. He took over the legal duties of those who attacked her, as we know rape was seen as a form of marriage and Math wanted to honour this. Lastly Branwen, who in the second branch is married to Matholwch, the King of Ireland. Her marriage ceremony was not a formal ceremony like we have today but instead was a date set for Branwen and Matholwch to sleep together, formalising their marriage union. Her brother Efnysien, who did not agree to this union felt betrayed and insulted that a ‘maiden’ as fair as his sister was given away without his consent, portraying how male relatives felt a personal responsibility for woman’s virginities and believed that they have some sort of ownership and right to whom she loses her virginity too, especially if they can gain something out of it. Although there are numerous other important and intriguing female characters in the Mabinogion, these three are very important when it comes to viewing how society at the time viewed women and virginity and how they might have treated women who may not fit the typical gender norms.
What Did Medieval Welsh Law Texts Say About Female Virginity?

Taylor Tully

Hello, I am Taylor Tully i am currently studying my MA in medieval studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I also have my own blog and tiktok accounts (Tiktok - Historyforallages) (Blog - Historyforallages1) where i talk in detail about all different types of history, focusing mainly on medieval and early modern.
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